OTTAWA — Rare opportunity: Historic stone mansion with 34 rooms. Four manicured acres. Magnificent river views. Includes adjacent pool house. Currently vacant. In desperate need of some TLC. For further information, contact government of Canada.
For more than two and a half years, the official residence of the prime minister of Canada, also known as 24 Sussex Drive, has stood abandoned, a drafty, asbestos-laden pile that’s full of history but remains unloved by the Canadian public and even some of its former residents.
Successive prime ministers have ignored repeated calls to have the place renovated, fearful of adverse public reaction to the spending of taxpayer money. A 2008 report from Canada’s auditor general said the building, which has not undergone a major refit in more than 50 years, was in “urgent” need of a substantial renovation, with the cost pegged at 10 million Canadian dollars.
Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister, ignored the advice, eager to uphold his image as a deficit-fighter and unwilling to move out for the 15 months needed for a renovation.
Conditions got so bad that when Justin Trudeau was elected in October 2015, he decided not to move into the mansion with his wife and three children.
Instead, Trudeau decamped down the road to another government-owned home on the grounds of the governor general, Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Canada. That home, known as Rideau Cottage, is not quite as grand as 24 Sussex but still has 10,000 square feet of space and has been recently updated.
With the future of 24 Sussex up in the air, Trudeau has said he’s resigned to not living in the official residence for his entire term, which ends in 2019. The problem, he says, is one of political perception. “No prime minister wants to spend a penny of taxpayer dollars upkeeping that home.”
His opposition, the Conservative Party, has been critical of government spending on official residences, including recent upgrades to Trudeau's summer residence at Harrington Lake. But the prime minister's decision to live at Rideau Cottage appears to have been a bargain for taxpayers, according to a report by the Ottawa Citizen last month.
Although 24 Sussex Drive has seen its share of high-profile visitors, including Sir Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, it’s not quite the White House or even 10 Downing Street in London, both of which include government offices as well as private quarters. The home is primarily a private residence, used occasionally for receptions or dinners with visiting dignitaries.
In fact, for more than 80 years, Canadian prime ministers were expected to handle their own accommodations. It was only in the late 1940s that the government bought the rambling 1860s home along the Ottawa River, built originally by a wealthy lumber baron.
A series of renovations was undertaken that stripped the house of its Victorian ornamentation, and in the early 1950s the prime minister moved in. Though successive prime ministers featured homey shots of the residence in their annual Christmas cards, 24 Sussex also attracted its share of detractors.
Margaret Trudeau, Justin’s mother, called the place “the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system.” She added, “I felt it was like a prison.”
Marion Pearson, the wife of another prime minister, opined that “it might have been more practical to tear it all down and begin again.”
There was also political controversy. In the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau, Justin's father, was the home’s resident, a group of secret benefactors banded together to finance the construction of an indoor swimming pool on the grounds, still in use today by Justin and his family. But the identity of the donors was never made public.
When Brian Mulroney moved in with his wife, Mila, in the 1980s, there were further renovations financed by Mulroney’s political party, including what one opposition politician dubbed as “Imelda Marcos-like closets” for Mila’s extensive shoe collection.
But the failure to carry out significant renovations on the house became something of a collective Canadian joke. In 2005, humorist Rick Mercer turned a TV interview with then-Prime Minister Paul Martin into a do-it-yourself episode. After inspecting the drafty windows, the comedian accompanied Martin to a hardware store, and later the two of them installed plastic insulation sheeting on the windows using a hair dryer.
Jokes aside, there’s still no decision on the future of the house. Benjamin Shinewald, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada, has written that Canadians are unrealistic about the cost of maintaining the residence.
“Through our collective, willful ignorance, we created the national fantasy that, unlike any other structure on the face of the planet, 24 Sussex simply does not require any upkeep at all, ever,” he said.
The National Capital Commission, a federal agency, owns 24 Sussex and several other official residences, including a home for the leader of the official opposition in the House of Commons and Trudeau’s summer home at Harrington Lake in the nearby Gatineau Hills.
A spokeswoman for the commission said that it “recognizes the historic and symbolic importance” of the residence and is working on a plan for the house’s future that would take into account a variety of factors including security, environmental sustainability and heritage preservation.
Meanwhile, people such as Maureen McTeer, wife of a former prime minister, are calling for the house to be demolished and replaced with a modern piece of architecture.
But heritage architect Barry Padolsky noted that the house is classified by the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office as a building of national significance. The real issue is to decide what its vocation should be, he said. It could remain a private residence, but it could also be used to house offices for the prime minister or be turned into a governmental retreat space.